When I was younger, I, like so many children, fell in love with the magic of Walt Disney.
Disney revolutionized animation and entertainment as a whole. But importantly, so many of the characters featured in these movies have become role models for children. Each story and each character is designed with the intent to teach children lessons and give them figures to look up to.
Disney is failing to represent diverse accents.
While earlier characters, especially the princesses, had some problematic aspects, we still look up to Disney to create moral role models for the next generation. Mulan and Elsa, for example, have become feminist icons in pop culture.
But while the actions and characterization of Disney characters get better each day, Disney is failing to represent one crucial aspect – accents.
The majority of Disney main characters speak in a standard Western accent. Even in films set outside of the US, the protagonists will speak like Westerners. If any characters speak in other accents, they will be side characters or villains.
Aladdin, for example, is set in the Middle East. However, both Aladdin and Jasmine speak in American accents. Jasmine’s father speaks in a vaguely stereotypical South Asian accent. Jafar also speaks in a non-standard accent. Of course, they are all voiced by white voice actors. The live-action remake didn’t do a better job.
Linguistic prejudice is a terrifying part of our society.
It wasn’t until Tiana that Disney featured a princess who spoke in a non-standard accent. Tiana, who is also the first Black main character in Disney, speaks in a Southern accent. But even since Tiana, barely any main characters speak in non-standard accents.
Disney is not alone in this failure. Accent representation is a huge gap in our strides toward diversity in media. Non-standard American accents will often be done mockingly and usually, they are done by people faking an accent.
But whether we notice it or not, linguistic prejudice is a terrifying part of our society. It refers to the discrimination of people who speak in non-standard accents and dialects. In the US, this includes people who speak in African American Vernacular English or accents like Appalachian that are not mainstream.
In George Zimmerman’s trial, where he was charged with murder for Trayvon Martin’s death. Rachel Jeantel, a key witness for the prosecution, spoke in African American Vernacular English. Her testimony was crucial, but she was deemed incomprehensible and not credible. The jury and the judge did not speak in AAVE, and due to linguistic prejudice, they decided that Jeantel’s natural dialect was enough to discount her testimony.
This is just one example of accent or dialect prejudice. In this case, it had truly devastating results. Zimmerman was acquitted despite overwhelming evidence and national outrage.
The media that we consume has a large part in our perceptions of the world at large. When we only hear one type of accent, we only view one type of accent as valid. The same way we expect media corporations like Disney to keep creating model characters, we should expect the films and shows we watch to appropriately represent the diversity of dialects across the country and the world.
When we only hear one type of accent, we only view one type of accent as valid.
When I’m talking about accent representation, I do not mean people putting on an accent. I mean people speaking in their native dialects. Even today, it’s not uncommon to watch actors, often white actors, mock foreign accents in their roles. We’ll also often see actors of certain ethnicities be forced to put on stereotypical accents that are not natural for them.
For example in Netflix’s Never Have I Ever, various actors of Indian descent in the show spoke in a stereotypical Indian accent despite them actually having standard American accents.
For linguistic representation to be genuine, actors can’t be faking their voices, and the accent can’t be done in any othering context. There’s no shortage of actors who speak in non-standard accents.
When it comes to representation, we can’t pick and choose. We need to adequately represent characteristics of communities around the world, including dialects and accents.
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